Courtesy of Deb Lockwood Wilke

Last week’s polar vortex poses a dangerous threat to dozens of homeless individuals who live out of tents and sleeping bags.

February 3, 2019

Wintertime Ithaca Homelessness Crisis Calls for Immediate Action

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Correction appended.

In a wooded stretch behind Ithaca’s Walmart known as “the Jungle,” dozens of homeless individuals live out of tents and sleeping bags, often battling poor weather and environmental conditions.

Under New York State’s Code-Blue policy, Tompkins County is required to provide shelter for anyone who requests it when the temperature drops below 32 degrees. However, with last week’s polar vortex bringing the temperature down to as low as negative seven degrees to Ithaca, the request for shelter rocketed, according to the Ithaca Voice, leaving the County in a shortage of resources.

Kit Kephart, commissioner for the Department of Social Services told Ithaca Voice that because the County does not have enough shelter beds, many people requesting shelter are housed temporarily in local churches or hotel rooms.

To help the homeless population in the county survive the winter, Winnie Ho ’19 collaborated with the Ithaca Homeless Crisis team to fundraise online from Jan. 31 to Feb. 7 in order to purchase resources to be delivered to the Ithaca homeless community.

“The wind chill temperatures outside are absolutely abysmal, and even a short walk outside personally for me was incredibly painful,” Ho told The Sun in an email. “I knew that we all viscerally understood how horrible it was to go outside, and wanted to launch that frustration and anger into something viable and productive.”

The Ithaca Homeless Crisis team is made up of local residents raising awareness and funds for Ithaca’s homeless community.

Ho first heard about Ithaca Homeless Crisis from Christopher Biehn, Ithaca College, who was a founding member of the team. She reached out to the team’s Facebook page monitor Deb Lockwood Wilke and collaborated to start an online fundraiser campaign.

“We agreed to call at 1 p.m. to discuss what could happen. We talked about immediate action and talked about how to deliver support as quickly as possible,” Ho said. “At around 2:30 p.m., we got our first donation. From that moment, the donations poured in — my phone notifications were going off every few minutes!”

The fundraiser was met with outpouring support, raising more than $2,300 in two days, according to Ho.

All of the funds will go to Wilke’s team. Prior to receiving the donations, Wilke’s team has already set up tents and structures in the Jungle to support housing for approximately 15-20 individuals.

Tompkins County St. John’s Community Services has also been sheltering a record number of individuals — over 150 per night. A portion of the money raised will support the provision of heating propane tanks in these facilities. Not only are these tanks expensive, but also inefficient in cold weather, increasing costs further.

“Hopefully the fundraiser will raise awareness of the issue of people living outside, not only in the temperatures we are currently experiencing, but year round in the Ithaca area. The problems and challenges change as the seasons change, however, right now if folks outside do not have a source of heat, they will not survive,” Wilke told The Sun. “The needs are great.”

Ho and Wilke decided to avoid the commission fees GoFundMe charges — in light of the issue’s urgency, they chose Venmo as their fundraising platform.

According to Ho, a major barrier to timely action was Cornell’s event registration policy. Policy changes implemented last semester require students to submit registration forms four weeks in advance.

“The sudden, and rather unannounced, shift has hampered the ability of students on campus to engage in direct action like this,” Ho said. “When our own neighbors in Ithaca face freezing temperatures and frostbite that students themselves did not want to be exposed to, we do not have time to wait for permission.”

Even without the publicity of an on-campus event, the immediate-action fundraiser has garnered the attention of hundreds of benefactors. To date, Ho and Wilke have raised close to $2,500, most of which came from individual 5-dollar donations. The fundraiser will progress throughout the week until Feb. 7.

“This fundraiser — and many collective efforts just like this one — is possible and only successful because of the kindness and support of so many people,” Ho said. “There are way too many people and organizations who have supported this to count, but the credit belongs to our entire community, and not to any of us.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that homeless individuals have little option but to continue living outdoors despite extreme weather and wind chill warnings. In fact, Tompkins County is required to provide shelter for any individual who requests it in said weather conditions. The article has been updated to provide this information.